Sabrina Van Tassel, director of the acclaimed 2020 documentary The State of Texas vs. Melissawill be the first to tell you that her film didn’t uncover new evidence about the case of Melissa Lucio, the Texas death row inmate who inspired a nationwide innocence movement with the support of the likes of Kim Kardashian .
Instead, the film showed the many red flags of the prosecution that were always in full view. And for people like Melissa Lucio in the justice system — poor, Latinx, victims of abuse — even getting a second look is a rare and dramatic shift in the status quo.
“Melissa would never be where she is if she wasn’t a poor Hispanic woman. It’s a fact,” said Ms. Van Tassel The Independent.
“I didn’t find out anything,” she continues. “I’m just putting all of these things together that were there for the justice system to see that they didn’t watch. I want the audience to realize that when you’re poor, that’s the kind of thing that happens to you. I want people to realize that in America you won’t find a single rich person on death row. Why is that? Not only is our system broken, but I think it was designed to put people like Melissa in jail.
So here are those facts, which the documentary, now streaming on Hulu, details, including death row interviews with Lucio herself.
Police arrested Melissa Lucio in 2007, after Mariah was found motionless on the floor of the crowded apartment where the family lived. The child showed signs of a broken arm that went untreated for weeks, a head injury, bite marks on his back and bruises all over his body. The official who performed Mariah’s autopsy said it was one of the worst examples of child abuse she had ever seen.
But lawyers argue the prosecution was more focused on securing a headline-grabbing verdict than seeking the truth.
After being arrested, Lucio was interrogated for seven hours by a group of armed police, who berated her as she claimed her innocence more than 100 times, according to a clemency petition her lawyers filed with the governor of the city. Texas, Greg Abbott. Lucio, who was grief-stricken, pregnant with twins at the time and exhausted as the interrogation dragged on until 3 a.m., finally appeared to admit to spanking and biting his child, which, according to prosecutors, proved his guilt in Mariah’s death.
The experts brought together by the defense argue that this harsh interrogation of the woman, a lifelong victim of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of men, seemed likely to produce false confessions under duress.
Some of the most poignant images of The State of Texas vs. Melissa is of this interrogation, where officers bend over a bewildered Lucio, who sits with a doll they brought to represent his dead daughter.
Neither Lucio’s lengthy file with state child welfare officials nor any eyewitness testimony indicates that she was ever physically abusive to any of her children, although officials from the The state previously took some of her children away from her due to indications that they were suffering from neglect.
Instead, Lucio, his defense team and family members say Mariah was injured falling down the stairs days before her death at the apartment and was the target of abuse by the police. part of her brothers and sisters, says the lawyer for the 53-year-old woman. never mentioned in his defense during the trial.
Armando Villalobos, the “tough on crime” county prosecutor who led the case against Lucio, is currently serving a 13-year federal prison sentence for bribery and extortion related to a vast corruption network in Texas.
Despite nearly two decades of court appeals, these complicating factors have rarely made a difference to state and federal authorities overseeing Lucio’s case. Texas has executed the most people in modern US historyand the United States Supreme Court turn off Lucio’s last call. Lucio’s story seemed destined to be erased forever.
Twenty years after Lucio’s arrest, his family say Ms Van Tassel was the first journalist they met who seemed interested in hearing her side of the story.
“They were basically like, ‘We’re glad to see you,'” she said of her first trip to Texas. « »
They told him about the fall, the likely abuse from other siblings, the disappointing defense and the zealous pursuit. A seemingly simple case of a negligent mother committing a horrific crime has suddenly become something much more complicated.
“Within an hour, being with her sister, she told me that Mariah had fallen down some stairs, that Melissa had never been violent with her, and in fact the family would always be mad at Melissa because ‘she never punished her children,” the filmmaker said. “She was just too lenient, and she was someone who tended to never say anything to her kids, and that drove the family crazy.”
Soon many more people would start asking questions.
Why the Death Penalty Doesn’t Work for America
More than half of the state’s Republican House of Representatives have joined calls to stop the execution, either by commuting Lucio’s sentence or delaying it until more evidence can be considered.
“When we do everything we can to ensure that an innocent Texan is not put to death by the state, or even a potentially innocent Texan is not put to death by the state…we let’s strengthen our criminal justice system,” the GOP representative said. Jeff Leach de Plano, who co-chairs the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, said in march.
Kim Kardashian has also thrown her influence behind the innocence campaign, a decision Ms Van Tassel said she deeply respects. She spent years trying to interest other notable figures in the case to no avail.
“I’m so thankful because she has incredible fame that she’s using in the right way,” she said. “With a tweet, she can and does change a person’s life. A lot of celebrities don’t.
The supporters created a petition on behalf of Lucio, and are urging Texas Governor Greg Abbott and state pardons and parole officials to consider clemency or a execution deadline.
Without any form of intervention, Ms. Lucio will be executed on April 27.
Another notable element of the film is a question it asks that rarely comes up in the heated conversations about guilt and innocence that accompany high-profile death penalty cases: what is the point of this type of punishment ? Did it make the world a better place for those most affected by the alleged crime?
After Ms. Lucio was placed on death row, her children were scattered across the state in the foster system, partially separating them from each other and their mother for years.
“Every night we cried and said we missed our mother. All that time has been wasted. If they were actually investigating, you know, looking into what happened, we wouldn’t be here. We would be with her. Everything would have been different,” says one of Melissa’s sons in the film.
The Lucio family will never get those years back, but Ms Van Tassel hopes the public pressure surrounding the case can prevent them from wasting more years with their mother if she is truly innocent. Whatever happens, it’s clear that Melissa Lucio’s name is no longer forgotten.
“Whether you are for or against the death penalty, one thing I am convinced of is that no American wants an innocent person to be executed. You have to make noise. Melissa has become a symbol against wrongful convictions,” she said. “Melissa’s case is not going away. If Melissa is executed, she will be a stain on the state of Texas for years to come.
The independent and the non-profit association Responsible Business for Justice Initiative (RBIJ) launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States. The RBIJ has attracted over 150 well-known signatories to its Statement of Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty – with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile leaders like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson in this initiative and pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage. .